Comedy is born of tragedy in the Irish memoir ‘Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?’
Last month at Columbia University, I attended a daylong conference on “New Irish Fiction.” While the topic was serious, it was also, as expected, a day with a lot of laughter and storytelling. Many of the authors there had written essays, reviews or memoirs in addition to their novels and short stories, and so the topic of authorial voice when writing non-fiction naturally came up. One writer from County Mayo made an off-hand remark that has stuck with me since: “Of course, as in most Irish literature, even our non-fiction work has a bit of devilment in it.”
That word was referenced several times afterward throughout the day, with one author venturing a definition of that devilment: a perverse playfulness, an anarchic attitude toward certainties or platitudes. James Joyce’s Ulysses might be the obvious examples that come to the American reader’s mind, but his autobiographical novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man plays with language almost as much. Serious Irish fiction has many other examples in recent years, including Eimear McBride’s searing 2015 novel A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, where the very prose itself is bedeviling.
On the level of comedy, I think of Frank O’Connor’s mischievous stories from an era when the Irish were supposedly humorless about religion, like “First Confession” (“‘Tis no advantage to anybody trying to be good,” his sister complains when he receives absolution, “I might just as well be a sinner like you.”); or more recent comic memoirs like Jason Byrne’s Adventures of a Wonky-Eyed Boy, where even the stereotypes about the Irish that he does not like are employed and subverted to comic effect.
“A bit of devilment” would have been an excellent subhead for Séamas O'Reilly’s Did Ye Hear Mammy Died, our newest selection for the Catholic Book Club. The memoir is a bestseller in Ireland and the United States. It is no experiment in prose style, nor does it have the wild banshee howl that wells up in some of the characters of Irish literature, but it takes an unlikely road for a comic memoir that is devilish in its own way.
“A bit of devilment” would have been an excellent subhead for Séamas O'Reilly’s Did Ye Hear Mammy Died, our newest selection for the Catholic Book Club.
O’Reilly begins with a catastrophe in his Irish Catholic family of 13—the death of his mother when he is just five years old. He uses that point of departure to tell a funny, charming, honest (but never cloying or sentimental) tale of growing up in difficult family circumstances and in an even more fraught physical environment: a small town on the border between the counties of Donegal and Derry wracked by the violence of “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland.
Did Ye Hear is O’Reilly’s first book—which may come as a surprise to readers who note a deft and practiced pen. He has been a contributor to The Irish Times and The Observer for a number of years, writing on culture with an acid wit.
Shortly after I had purchased Did Ye Hear Mammy Died after hearing a fair amount of buzz about it in book publishing circles, I received a curious email from an old friend who is also from a big Irish Catholic family (I am one of eight children) and was reading O’Reilly: “Dude. This is my family.” Not really, in his case or mine; neither of us suffered the loss of a parent in childhood. But once I delved into the book, I saw what he was getting at. Not just the particulars of growing up in close proximity (in age and otherwise) to many siblings, but the way O’Reilly mines his family’s joys and sorrows for a hearty laugh will strike many readers from large families as familiar. So too will anyone from a family of storytellers, whether or not those stories are true, sort of true or not true at all.
Séamas O'Reilly’s Did Ye Hear Mammy Died is no experiment in prose style, but it takes an unlikely road for a comic memoir that is devilish in its own way.
A tricky title
One is not long into Did Ye Hear before realizing it is more a memoir of home—both family and town—than a maudlin reflection on his mother’s death. He admits early on that his memories of his mother are few, because she died when he was so young, and he suspects even those memories he has are somewhat doctored by having been filtered through the stories of others. His mother is a hallowed figure in his family and among their acquaintances—like the Virgin Mary, he remembers thinking at the time of his First Communion, both a beloved mother and a distant saint. But O’Reilly’s own experiences of family are mostly of his father and siblings. Truth be told, the book is more about dear old Dad than Mammy.
I half-expected an early reminder from O’Reilly that being one of 11 children was not all that remarkable in Ireland in the 1970s, but he does no such thing: Rather, he leans into the curious nature of such a large family, pointing out that even the locals with five and six kids in their hometown thought the O’Reillys a bit of an oddity, if not actual sex freaks or a fertility cult. This was no farm clan sprung out of the sepia dreams of nostalgic Irish-Americans, after all—they lived in a city of 100,000 and Mr. O’Reilly was an accomplished engineer and Mrs. O’Reilly a schoolteacher. But O’Reilly notes that even as a kid he knew the family was different.
After his mother’s death, O’Reilly and his siblings are raised by his father with help from various selfless local figures and meddling busybodies. The family got about in a huge minibus driven by his father but really meant for municipal use, drawing exactly the stares and side-eye from the locals one might expect. In the local grammar school, he remembers, many families identified when their children had been enrolled by citing which O’Reilly was in their class. (I gave a laugh of familiarity at this. My own siblings and I discovered when our youngest brother was born via loudspeaker—upon hearing the news, our parish school principal simply toggled her microphone and announced it over the school intercom, where at the time my parents had children in the eighth, seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth, second and first grades.)
Everywhere O’Reilly goes in town, he is known—every teacher, shopkeeper, librarian and more seems to know his family and wants to share their condolences at his mother’s death (or, in later years, condolences at how hard his family had it, something that puzzles the happy boy in a relatively financially secure home). Their words of comfort often come across as the opposite, and O’Reilly has his most fun with many of these moments. “Older Irish women,” he notices, “possess an uncanny ability to fear nothing so much as causing offense, while being so clumsily dependably offensive it would be almost better if they never spoke at all.”
The authority figures in O’Reilly’s life are both the object of his most obvious affection and the subject of his funniest lines. A local nun whose hidden charity got the family through many a holiday dinner had “a smile that could melt glass and forearms that bent steel. She was effectively Popeye in a habit.” His own grandmother, he says, was “the sort of person who’d keep her arms folded on a trampoline.” While his family adored priests, their dog liked to menace them—but as part of his overall disposition: “In the end, I’m happy to presume our dog was a prick, not a bigot.”
A local nun whose hidden charity got the family through many a holiday dinner had “a smile that could melt glass and forearms that bent steel. She was effectively Popeye in a habit.”
Gallows humor, deadpan sensibility
O’Reilly is a storyteller in a family of them, and he notes that even now, when his siblings return to their father’s home, “telling old stories is a large percentage of what we do.” The stories and remembrances are shot through with gallows humor. Just a few pages into the book, he notes that the religious platitudes offered to him as a child by relatives and family friends at his mother’s death “reassured me that God was an avaricious gardener intent on murdering my loved ones whenever he pleased,” the first of many laugh-out-loud moments for me.
An element of that gallows humor, I think, is a habit O’Reilly has (one he attributes to his Derry background) of treating loss and lack in a matter-of-fact, deadpan sort of way. His own young habit of telling people “did ye hear Mammy died” as if delivering news of a local electoral result is part of a larger ethos of not making too much of one’s pain. He admits this himself in the context of Northern Ireland’s seemingly endless violence, itself euphemized by everyone. “The arc of sensibility in Northern Ireland bends away from fuss,” he says, adding:
Watching American TV shows in which loud, self-possessed people complained about their meals, for example, was as exotic as watching people use jetpacks on Tomorrow’s World. We are, after all, a population who lived through a period in which some 10 per cent of us lost an immediate family member to political violence and saw fit to call this era the Troubles, as if it were not a brutal cycle of spiteful bloodshed but rather a period of intemperate hailstorms, or a breakdown in the country’s system of planning applications.
As a result, O’Reilly writes, “don’t make a fuss” or “it’s no big deal” and similar reassurances serve to ameliorate (or cover up?) a fair amount of pain, shared or otherwise. A joke can serve that same purpose—and often does in this book. So, too, deflection works as an emotional survival mechanism. He notes that his own father was nervous when he found that O’Reilly was writing a book, preferring that O’Reilly “write him an entire chapter about dogs and priests.” What follows? An entire chapter about dogs and priests.
Séamas O'Reilly: "The arc of sensibility in Northern Ireland bends away from fuss."
An ancillary theme in the book is the uncertain nature of memory. There is none of Proust’s madeleine in this book: Not only is O’Reilly unsure of how much his memories of his mother are colored by the ways other family members tell the same stories of her and thus codify them in family lore, but so too are his and everyone else’s memories somewhat suspect for all sorts of reasons. (A great moment in the book: O’Reilly’s wife, having been told by his father that he never once saw his wife’s bedroom when they were courting because Catholics are so strict about sex, notes acidly that he could describe every nook and cranny of the upstairs of the house with uncanny clarity for having never seen it.)
A convention of American book publishing, one meant both to help buyers know what they are looking at but also to juice sales (memoirs outsell fiction by a wide margin these days) is to stick the “memoir” label right on the cover of the book, and Did Ye Hear has it, in the same font and almost as large as the title and author’s name. But to what extent is Did Ye Hear a memoir at all? Do we trust a comic with his or her own material, even when he admits his memory is unreliable? Should we care if there is more than a bit of the craic in every tale? Do we even want the “real story”?
O’Reilly does not mention it, but I thought of Joyce’s line in the voice of Stephen Dedalus at one point in this book: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” We read that line as a commentary on Ireland’s sorrowful history—but it is also Stephen Dedalus’s lament that he can’t stop thinking about his mother’s death.
Too grim a thought for a comic memoir, I know—and Séamas O'Reilly’s childhood and life come across as no nightmare, but as an existence filled with many of life’s best things, even if the launching point for his tale is a tragedy. As if an Irishman would ever start a story with something else?
Do we trust a comic with his or her own material, even when he admits his memory is unreliable? Should we care if there is more than a bit of the craic in every tale?
Questions for discussion:
- Vocabulary. For American readers, O’Reilly’s prose occasionally throws up an obstacle. What on earth does “gormless” mean? What is “salty gammon”? “Wellies”? Were there similar moments for you in the book—and do they distract or add to the charm?
- Faith and religion. Roman Catholicism is a given in O’Reilly’s family and culture, even though they live in a world violently bifurcated by religious tensions. At the same time, anyone between 30 and 60 will recognize some of the tropes of post-Vatican II Catholicism. Did his religious upbringing and the way Catholic themes emerge in the text strike you as familiar or different from your own experience?
- David Sedaris has written very cleverly and funnily about the way his siblings resent his mining of their lives for humor, and so can be wary of what exactly he is remembering and recording. How do you think O’Reilly’s characters come across? Many of them too are mostly aware as adults that he is writing about them. Are they believable? Caricatures? Whitewashed? Or a bit of all of the above?
- Humor. What is the connection between humor and loss? I discussed above some of the reasons why O’Reilly makes light of his family’s tragedies, but why do we find such humor funny? Until the last few decades, television comedy writing was dominated by Irish American and Jewish American men. Is that connected to this sense that loss is leavened by a laugh?